Ira Levin was one of my favorite writers. He only wrote seven novels during his lifetime (he died in 2007), and I’ve read all of them but one; they were each extraordinary. Like James M. Cain, his most famous novels were very short; but each one that I read was exceptional. His books were so ubiquitous that they’ve entered the vernacular; the references may be lost on younger people, but most people will know what you mean when you reference a Stepford wife or a boy from Brazil.
And everyone knows Rosemary’s Baby.
Levin was an amazing writer, truly amazing. Take the opening to Rosemary’s Baby:
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse had signed a lease on a five-room apartment in a geometric white house on First Avenue when they received word, from a woman named Mrs. Cortez, that a four-room apartment in the Bramford had become available. The Bramford, old, black, and elephantine, is a warren of high-ceilinged apartments prized for their fireplaces and Victorian detail. Rosemary and Guy had been on its waiting list since their marriage but had finally given up.
The opening paragraph of The Stepford Wives:
The Welcome Wagon lady, sixty if she was a day but working at youth and vivacity (ginger hair, red lips, a sunshine-yellow dress), twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna and said, “You’re really going to like it here! it’s a nice town with nice people! You couldn’t have made a better choice!” Her brown leather shoulderbag was enormous, old and scuffed; from it she dealt Joanna packets of powdered breakfast drink and soup mix, a toy-size box of non-polluting detergent, a booklet of discount slips good at twenty-two local shops, two cakes of soap, a folder of deoderant pads–
Both start so innocently; a young couple getting the apartment of their dreams, a wife newly moved to the suburbs being greeted by the Welcome-Wagon Lady (do people still do that, I wonder?). Sunshine, light, and innocence, right? Both books begin with new beginnings; a fresh start in a new home. And yet–both wives, Rosemary and Joanna, wind up in terrifying situations, and even worse, no one believes them, least of all their husbands–particularly since it was their husbands who sold them out in the first place; Guy Woodhouse selling Rosemary out to a cult of Satanists in exchange for career success, Joanna’s husband selling his feminist wife out for a realistic, animatronic robot version with a sexier figure who is programmed to be an obedient wife/slave to her husband. The Stepford Wives was the first Levin novel I read, and I read it shortly after it came out in paperback, plucking it off the wire paperback racks at the Zayre’s in Bolingbrook shortly after we’d moved to that suburb. And it’s really a frightening book to read when you’ve just moved to the suburbs.
But I can’t help but wonder why Levin’s work in these two instances isn’t considered domestic suspense? Both books are from the point of view of women; about their issues and their place in their marriages; and borrow the most important theme from romantic suspense novelists like Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt: his heroines cannot fully trust their husbands. Of course, both books veer into the supernatural…are they horror novels?
My favorite work of Levin’s is his first novel, which also won the Edgar for Best First, A Kiss Before Dying. It’s been filmed twice–neither film is worth watching, frankly–and it literally is genius. If you haven’t read it, you really need to–it’s one of the best suspense novels I’ve ever read. The problem, of course, with A Kiss Before Dying is you can’t really discuss it without spoiling it–and while you can still enjoy the book knowing the big twist, not having it spoiled really makes you appreciate how genius Levin really was.
And now, back to the spice mines.